A Spanish Ulcer Scenario: The Battle of Maria

After his disappointing defeat at Alcañiz, Suchet, who was expecting to be pursued by Blake’s Spanish army. Instead, whilst concentratd at Saragossa, he was given time to improve the morale of his troops, provide arrear of of pay, remove poor officers and began to gain their confidence. When Blake descended into the Huerba Valley and started to jeopardize his communications, Suchet had no choice but to fight, the other option—evacuating Saragossa and retreating up the Ebro—would have been too embarrassing.

Richard Bird

1/18/20248 min read

Quiet Before The Storm

After the battle of Alcañiz, Blake had waited three weeks for reinforcements to arrive, thus giving Suchet time to reorganize his troops. Reinforced Blake, with renewed confidence, marched on Saragossa. By June 14, Blake had reached Huerba, and his outposts were within ten miles of the city. He had deliberately divided his army in two. General Areizaga’s division was advancing down the right bank of the Huerba, while the remaining two divisions, under Blake, were on the left bank. It was not good military doctrine to divide his army just before a battle. Now the two armies were separated by a gap of six or seven miles and by the river.

Having left 3000 men plus one battery to guard his flank and rear, Suchet could only bring forward Musnier's division and Habert’s brigade from Laval's division. But he kept the whole of his cavalry and the rest of his artillery to himself. This gave him fourteen battalions—about 7,500 infantry—800 horses and twelve guns, less than 9,000 men in all—to fight the coming battle. Reinforcements were marching from Tudela, a further 3000 bayonets. This was encouraging information.

The Intense Skirmish Fight on the Spanish Right

Blake's army was slowly taking up its ground, so Suchet, not wishing to make a move until the brigade from Tudela had arrived, waited. and left his men to rest. However, the Spaniards next went forward and commenced a tentative advance, attempting to force the French to go on the offensive. The advance got out of hand; the cloud of skirmishers sent against Habert’s front had become so dense and advanced so far that at last the whole brigade had been seriously engaged. The two battalions of the 2nd Vistula were heavily involved in the fighting at this stage. The French brought a battery into line and immediately took advantage to open upon the mass of Spanish tirailleurs, forcing them to recoil towards their main body.

Musnier Storms The Spanish Position

Around noon, the discord on the French left subsided. However, somewhere between 1 and 2 p.m., the intensity of the conflict surged in a different direction. Frustrated by the inability to provoke Suchet into attacking, Blake finally decided to initiate the offensive. Columns were observed descending from his far-left wing, signalling an apparent intent to outflank the French right. Suchet reacted swiftly; he detached the Polish lancers and two hundred skirmishers to his flank, while a battalion of the 114th Line was ordered straight towards the Spanish column. The lancers charged the flank of the column, driving them back to the main body. But before they could reform, Suchet ordered Musnier’s division to assault the Spanish position.

The 114th and 115th Lines, along with the 1st Vistula, crossed the valley (Suchet calls it a ravine), and they marched with shoulered arms. The 1st Vistula, formed in columns of attack and led by the intrepid Colonel Chopiski, marched steadily to the Spanish positions. Their companions, the 114th and 115th, deployed. They came under a murderous fire but were well supported by Colonel Valées artillery.

Blake brought reinforcements from his right. The fighting was indecisive, despite the French gaining some ground. The 115th were checked and beaten back. Suchet had to move the 64th into a supporting position, and at the same time, he ordered 200 grenadiers led by his Chief of Staff, Harispe, to charge in order to restore the momentum. The 2nd Vistula was also drawn over from the left by Habert’s brigade. It was then that the heaven’s opened up on the combatants; they were struck by a violent hailstorm, which rendered visibility to but a few yards, cloaking them from sight for half an hour. Before it had subsided, Suchet heard that Colonel Robert had arrived at the Abadia de Santa Fe.

Habert’s Decisive Attack

The news of Robert’s arrival triggered Suchet to throw in Habert’s remaining battalions along with Wathier’s cavalry. It was to be decisive. When the storm had subsided, they advanced against the Spanish right on the low ground near the river. When the fire from the 14th Line and 5th Leger began taking effect, Suchet gave the order for Wathier’s cavalry to charge through the intervals of the infantry.

General O’Donoju’s cavalry did not wait for the impact but broke and fled the field, exposing the flanks of the battalions that were adjacent to them in the line. The 13th Cuirassiers and 4th Hussars rolled up these unfortunate troops and pursued them along the high road all the way to the edge of Maria. The two battalions and the half battery that Blake had posted near the bridge there were thrown into disorder and fled. The guns and bridge were now in French hands. His right arm collapsed, and Blake’s road linking him with Areizaga’s division was cut.

Habert’s brigade had, in the meantime, swung to their right to attack the flank of the Spanish center. Blake, with presence of mind, threw back his right and brought up those of Lazan’s units that hadn’t yet been drawn into the fight in the centre. The fight was sustained for awhile, but eventually the Spanish were forced to retreat back across the hills in good order, according to eyewitness accounts.

Blake also lost 1,000 killed, three or four times that number of wounded, and some hundreds of prisoners. Three flags were lost. Suchet admitted to losing 7-800 men.

When safe from pursuit, the beaten army crossed the Huerba, far above Maria, and rejoined Areizaga's division at Botorita on the right bank of that stream. Blake and his Valencians had fought well and left in relatively good order. One can only wonder why he hadn’t recalled Ariezaga. He was only 7 kilometres away and could have arrived in time to perhaps make a difference to the outcome.

We may never know, but we as wargamers can fight this scenario, allowing for the return of Ariezaga later in the day or not, as you prefer. The Spanish had fought well; they were not the walkovers that we gamers often classify them as. At Alcañiz and Maria, the boys had done well

Wargaming the Battle

There are several key events that need to be taken into consideration:

  • The weather. When does the hailstorm hit, and for how long? Throw one D6, 456 at 12.30 p.m. and each turn after. Once begun, throw 456 again for it to cease.

  • When will Colonel Robert’s command arrive? Throw one D6, 456 at 12.30 p.m. and each turn after till he arrives

  • Does Blake send a message to Ariezaga to return to the Maria, and if so, does Ariezaga obey straight away, and when does he arrive? At the start of the game, throw two D6s; any double results in Blake sending a recall order to Ariezaga. At 1 p.m., throw one D6, which determines the number of turns before arrival. He will arrive behind Cadrete in the march column.

With regard to the Order of Battle, I have looked to Oman, Suchet, and Haythornthwaite and have made what I believe to be an educated assumption as to the actual units there on the day. Oman’s map I have taken as accurate. I have made the assumption that Blake’s advanced guard under Coronel Creagh was on the front line with Roca, as the number of battalions adds up correctly. Oman gives us no scale on his map but mentions that the two armies were less than a mile apart.

Although the battle began at some point late in the morning, say 11 a.m., Suchet did want to delay the attack until he was sure Robert would turn up. Events were taken out of his hands. I would begin the game at 11 a.m. and let events and player temperament take their course.

In this and the Alacañiz scenario, I haven’t advocated a specific ruleset; I’ll leave that to your good selves. What I have done is suggested troop quality in the OBs below based on GdB as a guide, but the final decision is of course with you. I have assumed most of the commanders are average.

Based on Oman’s original map, we see Blake’s forces were drawn up in two lines: Roca’s division was drawn up on the northernmost ridge, and behind him, on the two spurs of the Sierra de la Muela, was Lazan’s division. In the open fields on the right, up to the river, were the cavalry. The artillery was placed in the intervals of the first line. Two battalions and a half battery protected Maria (off map).

Suchet drew up his forces with Habert’s brigade on the left, near the river;Roca Musnier’s division held the centre and right, with a squadron of Polish lancers out on the far right.
A battalion of the 5th Leger and one of the 64th were in reserve.

General Blake: Average

Vanguard: Coronel Creagh (l02/2,l76)
Almeria Infantry Regiment (2 battalions) Line
Cazadores de Valencia (l battalion) Line Sk

Division: Mariscal de campo Roca (l76/4,7l2)
lst de Saboya (3 battalions) Line
Provinciales de Avila (l battalion) Conscript
Tiradores de Carinena (l battalion) 2nd Line Sk
Tercio de Tortosa (l battalion) 2nd Line

Division: Teniente general Marques de Lazon (l58/5,679)
lst Voluntarios de Zaragoza (l battalion) Conscript
3rd Cazadores de Valencia (l battalion) 2nd Line Sk
lst de Valencia (3 battalions) 2nd Line
America Infantry Regiment (2 battalions) 2nd Line

Division: Brigadier O'Donoju (37/66l)(573 horses)
Olivencia Cavalry Regiment (4 squadrons) Cons
Santiago Cavalry Regiment (l squadron) Cons

Foot & Horse Artillery (l7 guns)(200 men) Line
Sappers de Valencia (7/300) Line

General de Division Suchet: Excellent

Reserve: Detached from V Corps
64th Line Regiment (1) (450) Veteran
Volitigeur company of 44th Line (?) Veteran Sk

Division: Général de division Musnier
114th Line Regiment (3) (1,627) 2nd Line
115th Line Regiment (3) (1,732) 2nd Line
1st Vistula Regiment (2) (1,039) Line
22/3rd Foot Artillery Line

Brigade: Général de brigade Habert
14th Line Regiment (2) (1,080) Line
2nd Vistula Regiment (2) (850) Line
5th Légere Regiment (1) (490) Line Sk
18/3rd Foot Artillery Line

Reinforcements from Toledo: Colonel Robert
116th Line Regiment (2) (1,000?) 2nd Line
117th Line Regiment (2) (1,000?) 2nd Line

Cavalry: General Wathier
4th Hussar Regiment (326) Veteran
13th Cuirassier Regiment (2) (200) Veteran
Polish Lancer Regiment (1) (80) Line
7/5th Horse Artillery Veteran
Artillery (320)

Oman’s History of the Peninsula War.
Suchet’s War in Spain

Wargaming the battle

Fight the battle with the rules of your choice. The battle did not begin until the afternoon, so time the number of turns to suit those rules. For instance, General d‘Armee uses 20 minutes maximum per turn. Assuming the battle begins around 2 p.m., you would have ample time to play up to 15 turns before sunset.

It is a fairly straightforward fight whereby Suchet needs to drive the Spanish army from Las Horcas and across or into the river. Capturing Las Horcas would therefore be a major victory point for the French and their main objective. This would split the Spanish army in two. The Spanish objective is to successfully defend Las Hocas and Cerro de los Pueyos. They are in a good position on the hills, but a perilous one if defeated.

I have compiled OBs (see below) from both Heythornthwaite and Oman. It is obvious that nearly all battalions on both sides are small to regular. In my view, the quality and condition of the troops are important in this scenario. That said, most of the infantry I would classify as Conscript to Regular. The only veterans would be Suchet’s escort of the 64th and 40th Hussars, the 4th Hussars, and perhaps the 13th Cuirassiers. The artillery on both sides is regular. You could classify the two small Spanish grenadier battalions as veterans if you are feeling generous.

On Oman's original map (which I have redrawn above), there is no indication of where the French artillery were positioned. I have made the assumption that they are with the relevant brigades (see OB). It was known that the Corp had 20 guns, so I followed Heythornthwaite’s OB and made another assumption that Musnier had a battery of 8 guns, Laval had the same, and 4 guns were attached to the Horse Artillery. I will update the scenario if and when I discover more detailed information.